Saturday, June 14, 2008

State of Origin

Four professional sports leagues in Australia are referred to as: ‘footy’. The meaning of that word depends on who says it and where they live. The leagues are: Rubgy Union, Rugby League, Aussie Football League, and A-league Football. The two most popular, Rugby League, and AFL, are sports I had never seen played before coming here. I like them both. Rugby Union is the ‘international rules' rugby that we are familiar with in Canada. A-league is just soccer.

The most popular sporting event in Brisbane (and all of Queensland) is the Rugby League three-game all-star series know as ‘State of Origin’. I will do my best to describe it today - it's awesome.

The sport of 'Rugby League' is much like the rugby that we know but much faster with fewer stopages - muchos entertainment! The people of Brisbane (Queensland) and Sydney (New South Wales) are very much rivals. There is not much real hatred - they're all Aussies first - but a general 'dislike' is very much present. Their differences are settled annually by the 'Maroons’ and the ‘Blues’ in three violent and bloody games. Every player on an ‘Origin’ team plays for their 'home' state. Their current pro-team and city are irrelevant - professional friendships between athletes mean nothing.
'State of Origin' is the equivalent of a hypothetical NHL all-star game between the best of Quebec versus the best of Ontario (only players born, raised, and taught the game in each province are eligible). And unlike the gentle and friendly all-star attitude we are familiar with in Canada, Origin is very serious business. Pride is very big in Australia. Perhaps a better analogy would be an NFL all-star game between the ‘Southern States’ and the ‘Northern States’. It could be called ‘Civil-War’. Unfortunately, the racial implications of something that foolish might keep it from being as entertaining as what the Aussies have done here.

In its two-decade history, State of Origin has been very closely contested. The 'overall' score is pretty puch perpetually tied. The encounter is admittedly more important to Brisbane than it is to Sydney because NSW is bigger and 'Sydney siders' consider themselves… well… better than the Queenslanders. So one might argue that the northern state has developed an understandable inferiority complex and STATE OF ORIGIN is their ultimate equalizer.

Every year home field advantage swaps. Two games are played in the home state, one away. This year games 1 and 3 are in Sydney. Game 2 was played right here on Wednesday night. The entire state shut down and watched as Wednesday became the night of the year for Brisbane: the Maroons skunked and embarrassed the Blues 30-0 to tie the series at 1-1. One of our friends saw the show live and claimed that he has never experienced anything like it. It gave him ‘shivers’ - 52 000 people (most of them in Maroon uniforms) mostly on their feet cheering and chanting for the whole game, in a stadium that is known as ‘The Cauldron’ because of how tightly the field is cramped by the massively-vertical grand-stands. At the start of the game the Sydney team was greeted with a collective BOOO that ‘shook the earth’. And they played accordingly. Home field advantage means a lot in game like this. Even the referees have to know (consciously or not) that some of their whistles will cause 50 000 people to cheer and others will cause them all to become angry.

I am fully committed to Origin tickets next year. This game has (once again) reminded me of just how well sport can entertain and unite us. No point in denying it: we're are a strange animal you and I.
Here's what it looked like (with thanks to some talented photographers from a local newspaper - I hope they won't sue me... I don't have much to lose anyway :)

If you would like more: here's a news story. And here's another.

I have never lived in a city with even a single professional team. Now, for two years, Kate and I have more than we can handle.

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